Mute 4.0: VCMG – Ssss (Mute Artists album, 2012)

vcmg_ssss2

As part of Mute‘s fortieth ‘anti-versary’, the label is making available very special limited edition vinyl versions of selected releases from their four decades of releasing and curating incredible music. To celebrate this element of Mute 4.0, we’re re-posting reviews of those special albums from the depths of the Documentary Evidence archives. Full details on the releases can be found here.

Ssss is the minimal techno album collaboration devised by Depeche Mode‘s Martin L. Gore with original Depeche songwriter Vince Clarke, arriving over thirty years since the pair last worked together.

Vince was, at that time, one of the founding members of Depeche Mode who, in 1981, released Speak & Spell, one of that defining year’s great synthpop albums. Clarke’s departure from the band left Gore in charge of songwriting duties, a role that would allow him to move the band into far darker territory toward the dark electro-rock they are purveyors of today, while Vince has produced – with Alison Moyet as Yazoo and Andy Bell as Erasure – some of the best pop music of the last thirty years.

The idea of Clarke and Gore working together again seemed remote until Vince started mentioning their collaboration on Twitter. That project stemmed from Clarke listening to a lot of minimal techno – which itself seems remote until you consider the remixes of other artists Vince has submitted recently – and asking Gore if he’d like to work with him on a project in that style; he wanted it to be something casual, with no deadlines and no major expectations. Gore himself is a fan of the genre, as anyone who has heard his DJ mixes or heard the tracks he selects to be played just before Depeche Mode take the stage at one of their huge arena shows (always a strange thing to hear barely-there techno over the speakers at somewhere like the O2). Vince went out to his Twitter fanbase and asked what they should call the project and whilst I don’t know if the moniker VCMG was a tweeter’s suggestion, it nevertheless fits the project perfectly (personally, I liked my suggestion of calling themselves Speak & Spell in reference to the last time they worked together, but I’m not bitter).

Ssss was produced by Gore and Clarke and mixed by California’s Timothy Wilkes who goes under the moniker Überzone / Q. Wilkes’s involvement – and Stefan ‘Pole’ Betke’s mastering – adds a certain credibility to what could be seen as two long-in-the-tooth veterans dabbling in a genre that neither have a particular pedigree in.

Opener ‘Lowly’ starts with some chords that feel like they were borrowed from ‘Enjoy The Silence’ or ‘Never Let Me Down Again’ before a dark energy takes over, all buzzing, clamouring synths, solid beats and crunchy percussion. Some nice synth pads heighten the bleak, almost symphonic mood while some very Kraftwerkian pulses and squalls pop up in the background. ‘Lowly’ feels like one of the few tracks on Ssss where Gore slips into the pensive negativity that often creeps into his songwriting. ‘Windup Robot’ starts as one of the strongest tracks here, a shiny, sleek bass-heavy monster although it would have benefited from a touch of 303-style madness somewhere along the way.

‘Bendy Bass’, as its name suggests, has a bendy bass sound, crisp beats and some spinning, elastic synth sounds. The droning synths and wonky, hollow lead riff may be a bit overbearing for this to work on the dancefloor, but it’s engaging enough. The second half introduces a partial riff which reminds me of one of the 12″ remixes of Erasure’s ‘Chains Of Love’. ‘Recycle’ has a slowed-down, subtle sensuality to it, a throbbing bass sound and some neat synths that sound like Kraftwerk’s vision of what pure of electricity might sound like. The vaguely orchestral stabs and the dramatic section at the centre are a bit unnecessary, but ‘Recycle’ is nevertheless one of Ssss‘s best moments. Closing track ‘Flux’ features some nice, emotional riffs that wouldn’t go amiss on some of Depeche Mode’s more poignant moments, offset by percolating synths and hissing percussion.

As a purely ‘listening’ album, Ssss is not a disappointment; whether it would work in a Richie Hawtin club set is debatable, but as a collaboration between two electronic music stalwarts it is interesting and engaging stuff, and there’s no denying the quality of the synth design at work here. At times you do long for a more song-based collaboration, a chance to hear how Clarke would have wrapped his synths around Gore’s mournful lyrics, a Depeche Mode that never was, but that was clearly never the premise here (particularly as Gore is hardly the most prolific lyricist in the world). Nevertheless, there is a distinct sense of two musicians challenging each other by operating outside of their comfort zone, with very fine results indeed.

For Mute 4.0, Ssss is being reissued as an orange double LP edition.

First posted 2012; edited 2018.

MUTE4.0_V3

(c) 2018 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence

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Depeche Mode – The O2 Arena, London 22.11.2017 – photos by Andy Sturmey

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(c) 2017 Andy Sturmey for Documentary Evidence & This Is Not Retro

People Are People – The Politics Of Depeche Mode (Clash feature, 2017)

“If ‘Where’s The RevolutIon?’ is any sort of bellwether of what Spirit will sound like, it suggests that Depeche Mode are ready to stop dealing in vagueness, the cryptic and the shrouded, and instead feel inclined to go for a more direct approach to the message they’re trying to get across.”

Clash, 2017

Ahead of the release of the new Depeche Mode album Spirit, I wrote a feature for Clash that explores the political messages within first single ‘Where’s The Revolution?’.

As a rule, I try to steer clear of politics if I can help it, but in the last twelve months that’s been pretty hard to do. And rightly so; to say we live in interesting times is a huge understatenent, and if there’s ever been a time to take notice of politics, amid the chaos and uncertainty in the wake of the votes against the status quo represented by Brexit and Donald Trump, now is most definitely that time.

Even so, this was a piece that I felt ill-equipped to write, until I got started. The piece was written in the second week of a fortnight spent working in the US, initially on the East Coast, then in the Mid-West, then from the East Coast ahead of returning to the UK, and maybe a sense of proximity to what’s going on over there allowed the piece to come together slightly easier. That and taking the opportunity to trawl back through the entire Depeche Mode catalogue in a bid to see whether the political dimension the band were showcasing with new single ‘Where’s The Revolution?’ was really that new after all.

My feature for Clash can be found here.

(c) 2017 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence for Clash

MG – Europa Hymn (Mute Records single, 2015) – Official Video

Mute Records today revealed the animated video for ‘Europa Hymn’, the first single taken from the forthcoming Martin Gore album MG which is released in April.

I had the great pleasure of getting to interview Martin earlier this month; that interview will be published online ahead of MG‘s release.

(c) 2015 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence

Gwen Stefani – Wonderful World (Interscope, 2006)

Gwen Stefani 'The Sweet Escape' CD artwork

The Sweet Escape album | Interscope | 2006

Mute alumni Martin Gore and Richard Hawley appeared on this upbeat closer to Gwen Stefani’s The Sweet Escape, both adding their guitar talents to a song which sounds suspiciously like Stefani trying to cover Depeche Mode‘s ‘Enjoy The Silence’ via Black’s song of the same name. Hawley and Gore’s contributions are quiet and not exactly distinctive: Hawley seems to offer ruminative slide guitar wheras Gore’s playing seems to be the kind of simple but devastating melodies he’s made his own. Unfortunately, they’re both just drowned out by the garish high energy pop of this Linda Perry-penned tune.

First posted 2013; re-posted 2014.

(c) 2014 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence

Recoil – Bloodline (Mute Records album, 1992)

Recoil 'Bloodline' LP artwork

mute records | lp/c/cd stumm94 | 04/1992

Released in 1992 between Depeche Mode‘s Violator and Songs Of Faith And Devotion, Recoil‘s Bloodline found Alan Wilder collaborating with Moby, covering The Sensational Alex Harvey Band’s ‘Faith Healer’ with Nitzer Ebb‘s Douglas McCarthy and deploying the vocals of Curve’s Toni Halliday; nicking swathes of vocals from bluesman Bukka White, and even dropping in a spoken word prayer from Diamanda Galas.

Unlike Wilder’s previous two releases as Recoil (1986’s 1+2 and 1988’s Hydrology), Bloodline showcases a more uptempo, song-based album; whilst his painstaking studio endeavours and long-form sound designs are in evidence across Bloodline, what emerges is an album that benefits from having the various vocalist contributors add their respective sections, even if at times it’s more pop than one might have expected. Then again, if there was one criticism of Wilder’s two previous releases, it was that they didn’t fit into any particular electronic genre – too pop to be ambient and too organic at times to be suited to the electronic music purist; clever, certainly, but somewhat impenetrable.

I like to think that Recoil showcases a certain ‘big budget’ electronic music. It’s the difference between a big Hollywood picture with all the special effects you can imagine and a tiny indie flick. Sonically, it feels like Wilder had access to all the best kit and equipment because of his role in one of the biggest bands in the world; in the hands of a bedroom-confined electronic musician the result would have been different and perhaps a little edgier, a touch grittier maybe. According to Wilder’s helpful Q&A on his website, the reality was somewhat more toward the ‘small’ end of the studio spectrum compared to his later studio, with Bloodline put together in the back room of his London home. Nevertheless, Bloodline still has a glossy high-end sheen to most of the tracks.

One of the most surprising (and most adventurous) tracks is ‘Curse’, which features Moby – at this point still in his pre-Mute Instinct days – rapping desperately about social and moral issues. I say surprising, because Moby hasn’t ever been known as a rapper; he’s clearly dabbled in a whole spectrum of different musical genres from ghostly ambient stasis to thrash metal but actually rapping remains something of an oddity. To confound things yet further, ‘Curse’ finds Moby’s vocal pitch-shifted downwards, giving his contribution a dark, aggressive quality, even if it means that his voice is unrecognisable. Wilder drops in slowed-down wheezing sounds, beats that sound like they originate from a steam-powered production line and liquid electro bass riffs. In keeping with a number of other tracks on Bloodline, ‘Curse’ is lengthy, the second half here being dominated by a more robust beat and samples of a manic orator delivering a religious protest speech.

‘Electro Blues For Bukka White’ proves categorically that Moby’s sampling of old blues records and hitching them to more modern soundscapes wasn’t necessarily all that innovative on Play, Wilder here doing the same with lengthy a cappella section of White’s vocal while a throbbing electro rhythm and some meditative bass noises drift along underneath. At times it feels like Depeche’s ‘Waiting For The Night’ from Violator only with a more pronounced beat. Neat symphonic strings add an unexpected emotional quality to this song, highlighting just how adept Wilder has always been at forcing out the emotions in a song. A similar effect is achieved on the closing track, ‘Freeze’, which has an austere sound, not dissimilar from some of Wilder’s more grandiose classically-informed work with Depeche at the time of Music For The Masses.

One of the best tracks on Bloodline is ‘The Defector’, a pulsing and mostly instrumental electro track that was Wilder’s self-confessed homage to Kraftwerk; that’s certainly evidenced in the thippy electronic sounds and clattering industrial beat reminiscent of Trans-Europe Express-era Kraftwerk. That said, ‘The Defector’ retains a robustness to its rhythms and synths that Kraftwerk have never quite been able to deliver. The two tracks featuring Toni Halliday (the languid ‘Edge To Life’, mooted as an ultimately abandoned second single, and the harder ‘Bloodline’) are among the most ‘pop’ tracks here, Halliday’s strained vocals for some reason getting a little too close to Madonna for comfort. Wilder’s backdrop, particularly on the twitchy ‘Bloodline’ has an edginess, an definite apocalyptic tone, but on the whole, while they’re undoubtedly clever sonically, there’s something vaguely disappointing about these two songs that I can’t quite put my finger on. ‘Bloodline’s saving grace is the dense middle section featuring lots of wordless singing from Halliday, dubby guitar plucks a la ‘Policy Of Truth’ and all sorts of drama, not least from Jenni McCarthy (Doug McCarthy’s daughter) who provides an unsettling vocal section.

Bloodline also includes two unnamed link tracks, one between ‘Electro Blues For Bukka White’ and ‘The Defector’ and one between ‘Curse’ and ‘Bloodline’. The former is a short atmospheric piece with a threatening, claustrophobic quality, a little like being surrounded by looming clouds of noxious electronics; the second features a heavily-processed Diamanda Galas delivering the Lord’s Prayer, creating a similarly unsettling effect.

Galas’s religious contribution, whether you can make it out or not, as well as the occasional use of preacher samples, highlight a vague theme that exists at various points during Bloodline. The album’s sequencing, from the possessed sounds of a man speaking in tongues at the very start of ‘Faith Healer’ through to the redemptive, elegiac sound of ‘Freeze’ creates the impression of someone moving from darkness to light, a theme that Wilder’s bandmate Martin L. Gore would use to devastating effect time after time in his writing for Depeche Mode. If anything, Wilder’s approach to enlightenment and salvation on Bloodline is more subtle and somehow all the more dangerous for it.

***

I bought this album whilst on holiday in Southend-on-Sea during Whitsun week in 1992, a few weeks before my mock GCSEs, along with Mute’s International compilation and Nitzer Ebb’s Belief. As it’s Whitsun this week, I decided to head down memory lane and re-post this review from 2012.

Thanks to Andy, Lyn and Jonathan for their help with this review.

Track listing:

lp/cd/c:
A1. / 1. Faith Healer
A2. / 2. Electro Blues For Bukka White
A3. / 3. The Defector
B1. / 4. Edge To Life
B2. / 5. Curse
B3. / 6. Bloodline
B4. / 7. Freeze (cassette and CD bonus track)

First published 2012; edited 2014

(c) 2014 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence

Martin L. Gore – Counterfeit (Mute Records, 1989)

Martin L. Gore 'Counterfeit' LP artwork

mute records | lp/cd/c stumm67 | 06/1989

Counterfeit was Martin L. Gore‘s first solo release outside of Depeche Mode. A collection of six covers ranging from The Durutti Column to Sparks, Gore’s voice is here allowed to shine through rather than being relegated to backing vocals or only appearing on the more poignant ballads of the Depeche back catalogue that were less suited to nominal frontman Dave Gahan‘s vocal style. Counterfeit was produced by Gore and Rhythm King stalwart Rico Conning, and released by Mute in 1989 while Depeche Mode were on downtime between the Music For The Masses and Violator albums. Never a band to go for cover versions (off the top of my head I can only count three, including one Beethoven piece), hearing Gore delivering other people’s songs is something of a rare, and absorbing, proposition.

Opening with a cover of Joe Crow’s ‘Compulsion’, things start off in relatively upbeat territory. Sometime Nightingales member Crow’s solitary and pretty obscure Cherry Red 7″ is here delivered as an affirming, strident track, all upbeat pianos, pulsing percussion and melodica-style synths. I used to listen to this occasionally after disappointing events took place (usually getting dumped by a girl), the ‘got to move on sometime’ refrain and the gentle piano somehow allowing me to transcend whatever I was feeling miserable about. Nearly twenty years on from when I first bought this, it still never fails to work. ‘In A Manner Of Speaking’ was originally recorded by Tuxedomoon and appeared on their Holy Wars LP. Gore’s version includes a vaguely Latin rhythm in the style of Depeche Mode’s ‘To Have And To Hold’ from Music For The Masses, underpinned by a dark synth bass pulse. ‘In A Manner Of Speaking’ is filled with a theatrical drama, and to add to the mood Gore speaks his way through the final section, its elliptical lyric about telling someone everything by saying nothing making a level of sense on an emotional level.

The cover of Factory Records’ stalwart Vini Reilly’s ‘Smile In The Crowd’ again opts for a Latin-style arrangement, a thin, pondering guitar line running throughout most of the track. This cover of the Durutti Column song is perhaps the closest Counterfeit comes to the bleak, inward-looking balladry that Gore’s own performances on record tend to lean toward. Meanwhile ‘Gone’, originally delivered by The Comsat Angels, has a cloying urgency, mining the same vibe of danger and helplessness that powered ‘A Question Of Time’, riding forth on a pulsing beat marked by thick bass notes and industrial tension.

Gore’s cover of Sparks’ ‘Never Turn Your Back On Mother Earth’ finds Gore taking Ron Mael’s beguiling, simple ode to the planet we live on and maintaining that sense of grace over a fragile, gentle backdrop of acoustic guitar and shimmering percussion. Tempted to make this plaintive song a whole lot darker though you might have expected Gore to be, instead the sense of wonderment of the Sparks original is maintained, Gore even having a decent crack at Russell Mael’s falsetto, highlighting the lead Depeche Mode songwriter’s strong vocal range. Gore saves the darkness for his take on the traditional song ‘Motherless Child’, here cast as a edgy jazz number, the dark swing of Gore’s introspective vocal delivered like an unused track from Cabaret.

Counterfeit is a relatively unassuming record, considering how big Depeche Mode had become by this point. Gore’s emotional outpourings have always been popular with fans (check out the deafening cheers after one of Gore’s solo performances in the middle of a Depeche Mode stadium show), and hearing his effortless ownership of these six songs is one of the genuine highlights of his body of vocal work. A follow-up to this EP would be released by Mute in 2003 containing more unexpected reworkings of other bands’ material.

Track listing:

lp/cd/c:
A1. / 1. Compulsion
A2. / 2. In A Manner Of Speaking
A3. / 3. Smile In The Crowd
B1. / 4. Gone
B2. / 5. Never Turn Your Back On Mother Earth
B3. / 6. Motherless Child

First published 2012; edited 2014

(c) 2014 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence